In this Berkeley seminar, knowledge begins with I dont know

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It’s easy to know what you think, but it’s much harder to know why you think it.

That’s the credo that guides Berkeley Law lecturer Alan Pomerantz when he teaches his undergraduate seminar, Current Political and Moral Conflicts and the U.S. Constitution. It’s a course designed to push students to their limits, challenging them to think critically about controversial topics, from abortion rights to the First Amendment.

“We all have firmly held beliefs,” he says. “A lot of people are so embedded into their ideas that they think anyone who doesn’t agree with them is nuts, crazy, bigoted, prejudiced… and it’s not necessarily true. Some people are, but not everyone.”

Watch excerpts from a class discussion on free speech in Professor Alan Pomerantz’s legal studies seminar. See the full discussion here. (UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally)

Today, the class of about two dozen students is discussing college speech codes — which speech should be protected or prohibited at public universities, and who gets to decide which speakers can speak on campus.

To start off the class, Pomerantz reads the Urban Dictionary’s definition of “snowflake.” The term was used to insult UC Berkeley’s students, faculty and administration after alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos arrived to speak on campus in February but was driven out when a protest turned violent. Backlash from conservatives and heated discussion nationally has spurred Chancellor Carol Christ to dedicate the academic year to free speech, and the campus is holding a series of panels, lectures and other events to affirm its dedication to upholding free speech as a constitutional right and a Berkeley value.

Pomerantz reads: “A snowflake is a hypersensitive, irrational person who can’t stand to have his or her worldviews challenged, or be offended in any perceived or even slightest of ways…” The definition goes on, but that’s the gist.

Alan Pomerantz teaches “Current Political and Moral Conflicts and the U.S. Constitution,” a seminar designed to push students to their limits, challenging them to think critically about controversial topics, from abortion rights to the First Amendment. (UC Berkeley photo by Anne Brice)

And with that, he starts the conversation. “My question for you is: Are you a snowflake? Let’s start with Olivia. Are you a snowflake?”

“No.”

“Why not? You think Milo should have been allowed to speak?”

“Yes.”

“You do. And what should the school have done with regard to the protest against him that cost the school $100,000 in damage? You realize the $100,000 the school spent eventually comes out of your pockets because it’s going to result in an increase in the cost of your tuition. So are you prepared to spend that money so that Milo gets to speak?”

“Yes,” answers Olivia.

“Because?”

“I definitely think you need to protect the speaker by containing the crowd, making sure it doesn’t get violent,” she says. “I think that no matter what he’s saying, he has a right to say it.”

Pomerantz, who has been practicing corporate law for 30 years, doesn’t take yes or no for an answer. He presents counterargument after counterargument, each scenario forcing students to dig deeper into why they think what they do, chipping away at their resolve. His goal, he says, is to find a crack in their argument that will lead to a shift in perspective where they say, “I’d never thought of that.”

“Oftentimes as students, we think we know a lot of things,” says sophomore Alexandra Barr, a double major in political science and society and environment. “Especially as Berkeley students. But there are reasons that other people view things a certain way, and I think this class opened my eyes to a lot of that.

For the next hour and a half, the debate continues, each student arguing their opinion. About halfway through, they begin to discuss the heckler’s veto — if it’s constitutional for the government to suppress a speech because of a violent reaction by hecklers, and if so, in what spaces. He calls on a student named Christian.

“If a heckler is trying to say, ‘You cannot speak here,’ that’s not permissible,” says Christian. “But if the hecklers are present and are just speaking over him, then boo hoo for him, maybe he should just get a microphone.”

“But the net itself is the same,” says Pomerantz. “I come on campus to speak, a group of people don’t like what I’m going to say, so they prohibit me from communicating my ideas, and your answer is the government has nothing to do about it.”

“No, no… you’re still speaking,” responds Christian. “If someone really wants to listen to you, they just have to go up really close to you and listen to what you’re saying. I mean, again, it’s like… ugh, I don’t know. Yeah.”

Bingo. This is what Pomerantz lives for — when a student realizes just how complex an issue is, and how no one answer is right. “It’s music to my ears,” he says.

To Christian, he says, “Well, not knowing… It’s not simple stuff and, of course, this is hard. It’s very hard, but a decision has to be made by the government. And the government in this case is Berkeley. It’s very, very hard.”

Pomerantz says it’s not about what the students think — all opinions are encouraged in the classroom. It’s about their ability to choose an argument and defend it.

“Before taking this class, I thought I always knew what I thought,” says freshman Emily Mustoe, who is now considering a major in legal studies after having taken the course. “But now, I’m more open to change and questioning my beliefs. My way of thinking has changed; it’s more structured. Instead of jumping to conclusions, I like to list out everything and think of both sides before I make any decisions.”

In the class, another student says many of the right-leaning speakers, like Yiannopoulos, who have been invited to speak on campus want to come to Berkeley for the wrong reasons.

“It’s a total instigation tactic,” he says. “I think the government needs to step in because it’s not just verbal speech. It’s not just a conversation. It’s going to incite violence. We know it’s going to do that.”

“And it’s the government’s job to stop the speech, not stop the violence?” asks Pomerantz.

“Yes, because I think the speech and the violence are immediately related.”

“So if the Ku Klux Klan wants to put up a table in Sproul Plaza, you’d prohibit that?”

“I would.”

“You brought up the Berkeley campus code of student conduct earlier. I’m going to read it: ‘Student conduct that occurs off university property is subject to the code where it affects the health, safety or security of any other member of the university community, or the mission of the university.’ So just because you’re a student at Berkeley, the code affects you even when you’re off campus. Are you okay with that?”

“It depends…”

“In which way?”

“I think in terms of talking about who can and can’t speak when it’s immediately related to the college campus.”

“You see, but you can’t say that it depends on that. You can’t do that. I’m not going to let you because you can’t get away with that because somebody, the university, has to decide in advance, ‘Do I let this person come? Do I get a lot of cops to prevent violence at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars of your money? Or do I not let that person speak? Or do I say to the people who invited that person, You gotta post $100,000 or a $500,000 bond,’ which essentially means they can’t speak? That’s the decision.”

It’s not an easy decision to make, he says, but it has to be made.

Barr says that the seminar inspired her to join , a student group on campus that aims to start conversations between conservatives and liberals, something she says is especially important right now. “I’ve come to value that a lot more,” she says. “I think it’s important for people to try to have these conversations and realize why the other side thinks a certain way. Otherwise, there’s never going to be any solutions or cooperation.”

Learn more about Pomerantz’s two-credit undergraduate seminar on the College of Letters and Science’s website.

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